07.01.2008 0

A Winning “Steak” In Free Speech

  • On: 07/16/2008 15:26:30
  • In: First Amendment
  • “The beauty of America is that everyone has a right to say what they want…it’s one of the fundamentals of our Democracy.” – Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks.

    Until about two years ago- Geno’s Steaks, on the corner of 9th and Passayunk in Philadelphia, was little more than a local legend. However, that all changed in June of 2006 when owner Joey Vento garnered national attention regarding a sign he posted in hiws business’s window that read, “This is America – When ordering, please speak English.”

    To most observers, this seemed like an entirely reasonable request, since the U.S. is an English-speaking nation and Geno’s Steaks is not the Tower of Babel. But in June of 2006, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed a discrimination complaint against Vento, claiming the sign violated the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance. The complaint was filed by no less than Commission Chairman Rev. James S. Allen Sr., who charged:

    “We think it is discriminatory, and we are concerned about the image of Philadelphia… The issue is not whether anyone has been denied service, but that such a sign discourages people from coming asking for service.”

    Now, in the first place, Geno’s Steaks has been a Philly institution for over 40 years- so clearly not too many people were discouraged from “asking for service”. And as for Philadelphia’s image, this is after all the city that gained infamy some years back for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.

    Be that as it may, the City of Philadelphia’s Fair Practice Ordinance states:

    “Any individual claiming to be aggrieved by…an unlawful public accommodation practice may make, sign, and file with the Commission a verified complaint in writing…If the Commission, after investigation, determines that probable cause exists for the allegation of the complaint, the Commission may immediately endeavor to eliminate the unlawful practice complained of by persuasion.”

    And, it gets better. If the perpetrator of an alleged “unlawful practice” refuses to submit to the attempts at “persuasion” by a commission whose rules of evidence would be the envy of a Soviet-era show trial:

    “The case in support of the complaint shall be presented to the Commission by its attorney or a member of its staff. The Respondent shall file a written verified answer to the complaint and may appear at such a hearing in person or with counsel. The commission shall not be bounded by the strict rules of evidence prevailing in courts of law or equity….”

    So when Vento refused to submit to “persuasion” and remove the sign, he was hauled into a hearing before the Commission that, according to Vento, was acting as prosecutor, judge and jury.

    Despite the odds being stacked against Vento, justice ultimately prevailed when the Commission concluded it’s hearing yesterday and issued its verdict. In a split 2-1 vote, the Commission ruled that Vento’s sign was not discriminatory and could remain in place in his storefront window. (And Mr. Vento, by extension, would not be required to learn the world’s 382 disparate languages, dialects and slang jargon)

    Upon hearing the verdict Vento said, “It’s a good victory…the bottom line is I didn’t do anything wrong.” However, had the Commission ruled against Vento, it would have imposed fines and revoked his business license. And the price of a good cheese steak would be individual freedom.

    ALG Perspective:
    The fact that this Commission has the “legal authority” to act as accuser, judge, jury and executioner is patently absurd. When an individual is accused of breaking the law, he should be brought before a court of law and be subject to a jury of his peers. It’s time to put an end to these extra legal Commissions and “people’s tribunals” that can strip law abiding citizens, like Mr. Vento, of their rights at the slightest whim.

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